Reclining Buddhas smile peacefully under tropical skies in this famously laid-back, disarmingly friendly nation. Sleepy towns showcase elegant Buddhist architecture and flaking colonial villas, while beyond lies cascading waterfalls, fairytale mountains and vast jungles. No trip to Indochina is complete without exploring Laos’ rich cultural treasures and stunning natural beauty.
Even the mighty Mekong River seems to relax into a slower pace here, its relentless flow meandering between dramatic karst mountains on its way south into Cambodia. Landlocked between its more-travelled neighbours, Laos exudes a refreshingly toned-down charm, an easygoing atmosphere in contrast to the exhilarating bedlam of Bangkok or Hanoi. That’s not to say Laos is short of bizarre and unique surprises; the unexplained hollowed monoliths on the eerie Plain of Jars, and the ancient psychedelic Buddha statues at Xieng Khuan (‘Spirit City’) are curious relics of ancient Laotian civilisations. Off the beaten track, luxury lodges provide rare access to everything from colourfully dressed hill tribes to spectacular subterranean river systems.
Best explored at a leisurely pace, Laos’ cultural hub, Luang Prabang, has rightfully earned the reputation of an essential pulse-slower on the Southeast Asia circuit. Ochre villas of the French colonial era jostle with the soaring roofs of tranquil temples, under swaying palms that move to the sonorous beat of Buddhist drums. Further south, languid Vientiane, the nation’s capital, provides delightful cuisine, wide boulevards, flamboyant architecture, and serene riverside spots to enjoy a cool Beerlao, overlooking Thailand on the opposite bank. From characterfully restored accommodation, head out into the wilderness to bathe with elephants, plunge into gushing aquamarine waterfalls, trek shrine-studded hills or drift idly down the Mekong on a traditional longboat. Or, for complete relaxation, hit the hammock in Laos’ 4000 islands, where days are filled with fishing, tubing, cross-island strolls or gourmet picnics by picturesque waterfalls. Easily accessed via Thailand to the west, Vietnam to the east or Cambodia to the south, we’ll help you tailor adequate time into your Indochina adventure to encounter Laos’ captivating sights.
From Vientiane’s oddly-shaped golden pagoda and its delicately-carved Patuxai arch to Luang Prabang’s magnificent Buddhist temples and hilltop shrines, sublime Laotian architecture overshadows that of the French colonial era, though chic villas and derelict administrative buildings undoubtedly add to Laos’ exotic allure. Clustered together in Laos’ few towns, there is a quiet sense of intimacy in these secluded shrines and monuments.
Drifting down the Mekong remains one of the most relaxing ways to appreciate Laos’ spectacular scenery; karst mountains blanketed in lush green jungle loom at each graceful meander. Elsewhere, tropical landscapes are home to cackling gibbons and chubby moon bears; incredible stepped waterfalls overflow with bright blue water; dank caves echo with the drips of centuries-old stalactites; and hammocks hang invitingly on the peaceful river islands at Laos’ southern tip.
The vast majority of Laos is rich jungle in bright green hues, carpeting lofty mountains, undulating hills and fertile plains. Trek into this plentiful Eden by foot to marvel at awe-inspiring panoramas and to spot rare species of bird, or scythe through dense flora on elephant-back to spot see bears and gibbons lounging in the canopy. There’s zip-lining, cave kayaking, river rafting, rock climbing and waterfall jumping awaiting intrepid travellers with thrill-seeking tendencies.
Rising with the morning mists, barefoot on dusty lanes, monks in amber robes file through Laos’ towns to collect alms in a sacred ceremony that dates back to the 14th century. It’s a wonderfully calm and humbling start to a day’s exploration, though you’ll encounter monks throughout your time in Laos – chuckling in temple gardens or chanting under the Buddha’s all-knowing gaze.
With most Laotians enjoying a peaceful agrarian life – capital Vientiane only has a population of 500,000 – the country’s ancient culture and customs, from traditionally dressed hill tribes to roadside animist shrines, are very much alive. Urban side streets steam with temptations laid on palm leaf platters: perhaps try a sindad – barbecue Laotian-style – or tuck into sticky rice curries and freshly-made baguettes washed down with a glass or two of laolao, a rice whiskey which some locals will try to persuade you contains tiger blood.
An essential part of any holiday to Laos, pick through vibrant markets burgeoning with locally-produced handicrafts that showcase fascinating culture and artistry. Luang Prabang’s night market is one of the most celebrated; setting up at dusk, enticing aromas from sizzling street food tease the nostrils as you haggle through a sea of fine silks, intricately carved woodwork, and even jewellery made from pieces of undetonated bombs.
Highlights of Indochina
18 days from £5,200 pp incl. flights
Stay in the region's most luxurious accommodation, enjoy excursions including an overnight cruise at Halong Bay, cooking course in Hoi An and traditional Mekong boat trip, amongst other tours on this truly special itinerary.
A River Journey through Indochina
13 days from £7,500 pp incl. flights
Sail the mighty Mekong River to discover riverside monasteries and floating markets linking Ho Chi Minh City's (Saigon) buzzing energy charm with the golden palaces of Phnom Penh before ending with Cambodia’s national treasure and icon, Angkor Wat.